On the afternoon of November 13th, Denny Stiner tucked a doe decoy under his arm and headed for a levy where the silhouette of a deer could be seen from several wooded bedding areas. A large round hay bale provided modest concealment nearby. This creative hunter knew that decoys worked in places nearly impossible to hunt by other means and could be productive throughout the day. Since bucks almost always approach from downwind, he anticipated the alluring female would seduce a rutting buck.
A half-hour passed. Suddenly, hooves pounded and Stiner gripped his bow as a buck with large antlers raced in, circled the doe, and presented a quartering-away shot at 15 yards. Stiner drew and released quickly, causing the buck to burst into flight.
“I knew this was a good deer, but my eyes bugged out when I saw it stop just 40 yards away,” he recalled. Suddenly its legs wobbled and the animal collapsed. To say this deer was big would be a mammoth understatement. Its 25 score-able point grossed 232 4/8 P&Y. What a hog!
Bucks Work Too
Stiner had found a deer track that measured more than five inches wide, an indication that a moose of a buck was about. Sneaking into a bedding area, Stiner erected a medium size buck decoy, put his future son-in-law in a tree stand and turned on a video camera to capture the action. Although his bow was within reach, he planned to rattle in the buck for the youngster, using the decoy to produce a predictable shot.
After the first series of rattling, several does approached curiously, capturing the young hunter’s full attention. From another direction Stiner saw a huge buck approaching, ears back and neck hair standing tall. Laying the camera aside, Stiner picked up his bow and attached the release, just as the deer charged the decoy. Stiner shot hastily at close range and missed.
“The deer hit the ground as I released, then slammed the decoy like a runaway locomotive,” he said. “The decoy went end over end and the buck retreated, stopping for one more long look at its adversary,” laughs Stiner.
The outraged buck broke all four legs of the decoy, inflicting 13 countable gouges in its soft body. Stiner estimated that the aggressor had 12–13 inch tines and would have easily made Boone & Crockett.
Why Decoys Work
Deer decoys give the hunter the added advantage of “placing” a buck in an area where the hunter can make the best shot. Rattling and grunting can attract deer to your location. Unfortunately, deer often focus on your exact whereabouts, presenting a front angled shot and making drawing the bow difficult. Once an aggressive or curious buck spots a decoy, its attention is focused on the bogus animal, allowing you greater freedom to draw and shoot, because rutting bucks have great tunnel vision when their dominance is challenged.
Decoys often attract the largest buck in the area. Dominant spring gobblers hate “jakes,” one-year-old turkeys that are not fully developed. When given a choice, a mature gobbler will often attack a jake rather than mount a hen. Large whitetail bucks have similar tendencies.
Stiner, a resident of Springfield, IL, has been hooked on decoys for decades. He was so convinced that decoys would work on whitetail deer, he built his own. Tweaking the concept since the early ’90s, his first model weighed nearly 40 lbs. and took almost a year to perfect. “The first time, the head came out like a cow,” laughed Stiner. “I really learned a lot that year.” Eventually, he had a decoy that weighed 22 lbs. and did not scare other deer. A real deer tail — deployed hanging down or straight out — was part of the ruse.
Stiner was so serious about the decoy strategy that he developed a “herd” that he transported in an enclosed trailer. Since he primarily hunts farmlands in the Midwest, he can drive his gear to a spot, set up, and then hunt. If he’ll be using a morning stand, he lays the models flat on the ground and then sets them up in the dark the next morning.
Scare the Little Ones Away
Stiner has had so much success with his decoy setups that he sometimes uses a set of 170 class antlers on the buck “to keep the small bucks away.” He primarily uses a modest set of eight point antlers that score about 110, just enough to be threatening to a Midwestern, grain-fed brute.
As with duck or turkey decoys, Stiner likes to use more than one. During the rut, aggressive dominant bucks will often attack a smaller buck, especially in the presence of a doe. Unfortunately, antlered decoys may scare away does during this breeding time. Since most bucks will pursue does, they take another path to avoid being harassed. Using a single doe is the safest plan.
Decoys can also be used as confidence inducers. Waterfowl hunters know that placing decoys of species other than ducks in a rig presents a more natural allure. If you are hunting an alfalfa field in early season and want the deer to enter the field earlier, place a decoy or two conspicuously in the crop. The presence of the bogus deer signals “the coast is clear.”